Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/16/2008 01:44:00 AM
Panther Revival: From Nearly Dead to a No. 4 Seed
Levance Fields, who had six assists Saturday night, is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- It was 86 days ago, on Dec. 20 of a young and promising season, that Pitt upset an undefeated Duke team here at Madison Square Garden. Junior point guard Levance Fields hit what would go down as one of the most cold-blooded shots of the year, a step-back three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in overtime, to beat the Blue Devils 65-64. It established the Panthers as a legitimate top-10 team -- they jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 in the next Associated Press poll -- but coach Jamie Dixon called it "the most bittersweet night in my coaching career."
The reason: senior forward Mike Cook, who might have finished as the team's second-leading scorer, had crumpled to the floor during the win with a torn ACL, lost for the season. There was speculation that after beating Duke, the rest would be downhill for the hobbled Panthers. What happened nine days later in their next game only strengthened that theory: Fields fractured his left foot in an 80-55 loss to Dayton and did not return until Feb. 15. The basketball gods were being especially cruel to Pitt -- said Fields, "We were mad, and we didn't understand why things were happening to us like that" -- and did not relent even after Fields was back in the fold. By Feb. 24, Pitt had fallen to 7-7 in conference play, all the way out of the polls, and on the fringe of NCAA tournament bracket projections.
So what does one make of the scene at the Garden late Saturday night, after Pitt's fourth win in four days to take the Big East tournament title as a No. 7 seed? There was Fields, dribbling out the clock on a 74-65 win over Georgetown in the championship game, then launching the ball skyward before his teammates, including Cook, mobbed him on the floor. And there was junior forward Sam Young, the tourney's MVP after scoring 16 points in the finale (and 70 since Wednesday), soaking in the celebration. Young said later that it "felt like I just won a million dollars."
What the Panthers had done was return to their comfort zone on 7th Avenue and 32nd Street and revive their season, going on a surprise run that may elevate them all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs when the field is announced Sunday night. With this Big East tourney crown, the win over Duke, and the argument that their 26-9 record would be 28-7 or even 29-6 had Fields not been sidelined for a month and a half, Pitt has a compelling case to jump onto the bracket's fourth line. Such a position would have seemed unfathomable as of a week ago.
This rise was not built on a new style of play, but rather a return to the blue-collar identity that had faded during the Panthers' swoon. On Saturday against the Hoyas, that grittiness was on full display: Pitt barreled its way to the foul line for 44 attempts compared to Georgetown's nine, and the Panthers won the offensive rebounding battle 19-7, with freshman forward DeJuan Blair grabbing 10 on his own. Young even had three blocks -- all of Roy Hibbert shots -- to go with his MVP-clinching night. "For whatever reason, I didn't think we were playing as aggressive as we needed to, say 10 games ago," said Dixon. "But when we got all our guys back, we have just been more physical, more aggressive, and just more like we normally are, I mean, more like Pitt."
At the center of this renaissance is Fields, the stocky Brooklyn floor general who earned 13 attempts at the charity stripe en route to scoring 10 points. He may never get mentioned in the same breath as North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin or UCLA's Darren Collison, but Fields is one of the nation's steadier hands at the point. Over four games in the Big East tournament, he had 22 assists against just four turnovers -- an incredible 5.5-to-1 ratio -- making it clear just how much better Pitt is when Fields is running the show.
While standing outside of his locker room around midnight, with a piece of the championship net stuck behind his right ear, Fields mentioned that he had the option to heal for the remainder of this season rather than return in February. "I knew the risks and consequences of sitting out," he said, "but I chose to come back even earlier than projected, and that turned out to be a good thing."
Good indeed, for without Fields this hometown party would not have been possible. The question now is, was this celebration just that -- a nice streak of wins in a friendly setting for a team heavily populated with New York-area players -- and nothing more?
The Big East tournament title game is not new territory for Pitt; it has reached the final round in seven of the past eight years. Nor is the NCAA tournament a foreign place; the Panthers have been in the dance for each of the past six seasons. What they haven't managed to do this decade, however, is make it past the Sweet 16. The possibility here is that this Pitt team is uniquely on the upswing, haven already taken its beating from the basketball gods and built itself back into a contender. This time, they left the Garden with no bittersweet emotions, only hope that their best work is still ahead.
Checking in from the final night at Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament ...
The Georgetown band was out early in the Garden lobby, performing more than an hour before gametime. Eddy Curry sang backup.
Another street shot, from the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue ...
... and Pitt warming up for its fourth game in four days.
A prediction for tonight: After winning by raining threes on Thursday, and by feeding Roy Hibbert on Friday, Georgetown is forced to win the Big East title in yet another style: by out-grinding the Panthers in a low-low-scoring affair.
Postgame update: Well ... that was a little off. Pitt amazingly showed no signs of exhaustion, kept Georgetown's guards under wraps, and may have done enough to lock up a No. 4 seed. More later from the Garden.
NEW YORK -- Another morning post at the end of the night. It's easier to get sleep this way. The Pittsburgh Panthers have already left the building by now, and have most likely passed out from the exhaustion of winning three games in three days. Blogging three straight days of this Big East tournament, I would contend, is equally tiring. But I expect no sympathy.
These are the four things I care about most heading into Saturday:
1. If Pitt can knock off Georgetown tonight -- a scenario that seems entirely plausible -- the Panthers have a legitimate case for a No. 5 seed. They were considered an 8 or a 9 heading into this week, but they're making a push based on these facts:
• Momentum. Winning seven of its final eight regular-season games, with two of those victories coming over Louisville and Georgetown, would make Pitt look rather attractive in the eyes of the selection committee.
• The Negative Momentum of Current Fives. Vanderbilt (with its opening-round loss to Arkansas in the SEC tournament) and Indiana (which lost a stunner to Minnesota on Saturday) are slumping into the dance, and neither team has much of a non-conference resume. Whereas Pitt has a win over Duke.
• The Levance Fields Argument. The Panthers only have two bad losses on their resume -- at Cincinnati on Jan. 19 and against Rutgers on Jan. 26. Both of those happened while Fields was hurt. There's no doubt the selection committee will take this into consideration.
"When it hit, at first it sounded like people were stomping their feet all at once. Then it got so loud it sounded like a train running through the place -- and we realized it was something a lot worse than that. We got up from their media seats, and the players ran off the court. All of this insulation that had come down from the roof was flying everywhere, and it looked like feathers. [Blue Ribbon Yearbook editor] Chris Dortch told me he almost got hit by a falling washer."
3. There are still three weeks of this tourney business left, but I'm not sure if I'm going to get two better answers on my tape recorder than the ones from this locker-room interview with West Virginia's Joe Alexander on Thursday:
Reporter (not me): You grew up in China. What was that like? Alexander: There were a lot of Chinese people.
Different reporter (also not me), after making a statement about how it seems like the Mountaineers are peaking at the right time: Do you feel like you're peaking? Alexander, starting to answer, then realizing the potential other meaning of this, and breaking into laughter: "Ye-- Yeah." (The reporter, oblivious to this, nods.)
4. Darren Collison said earlier this week that "Luc [Richard Mbah a Moute] is the real reason" why UCLA pulled out miracle wins over Stanford and Cal to close the Pac-10 regular season. (The junior forward, who's viewed as somewhat of a glue guy, had double-doubles in both of those games.) Now, can the Bruins manage to win NCAA tournament games without him? Mbah a Moute was on crutches after injuring an ankle in the Bruins' Pac-10 tourney win over USC on Friday. I'm far less inclined to pick UCLA as my national champ if the Prince is even hobbled; he's far too valuable to their lockdown defense to not be missed.
• Pool business: See those images in the right-hand rail? Those are your three-step instructions for joining the third annual Tourney Blog Pool, now on Facebook. Or you can just click here to begin the process, and then find the invitation to the pool on the application's home page.
As of Saturday at 12:33 a.m., we have 400 members of the Blog Pool. Ninety-two of those folks have been kind enough to friend my SI profile on Facebook; the rest -- as well as any new entrants -- are invited to do the same. • The tourney playlist, curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear, rolls on, one free mp3 at a time:
Day 4's track is Beach House's Gila. Relaxing shoegaze for the calm before the Sunday storm. Download and enjoy.
Roy Hibbert scored a game- and season-high 25 points.
Karl Walter/Getty Images
NEW YORK -- On Thursday at the Big East tournament, we saw Roy Hibbert, Georgetown's 7-foot-2 giant, reduced to a space-eater on the Hoyas' bench -- essentially no more than a set of long legs for his teammates to avoid tripping over while making their way in and out of their 82-63 win over Villanova. Hibbert had more fouls (five) than points (zero) and rebounds (four) combined, and managed to stay on the floor for just 14 minutes. If there was one thing to worry about after that rout, it was that Georgetown's senior star was a non-factor in one of his final games leading up to his last NCAA tournament.
In the 29 hours between that victory and Friday's 72-55 semifinal win over West Virginia, it seems that a tempest of emotion built up inside the normally low-key Hibbert. He said he did not need his coach, John Thompson III, to say a thing about redeeming himself against West Virginia. Hibbert ignored calls coming in to his cell-phone, and said even the Instant Message he received from Jeff Green, the star of last year's Hoya Final Four run, was unnecessary. It had said, merely, "You know what you need to do."
The task at hand was to show the nation Roy Hibbert In Full. Not just the lumbering big man who had led Georgetown in points (13.1) and rebounds (6.3) this season, but the Roy with a shot of adrenaline and a crazy streak mixed in. The Roy who not only outrebounded the Mountaineers' entire front line (he had 13), but also chose to flex -- in an imitation of the new ESPN barbed-wire commercial, he said -- while coming off the court for a second-half timeout. The Roy who not only scored a season-high 25 points, but celebrated his final basket, an and-one bunny at the 5:05 mark, by strutting toward press row and repeatedly yelling, "I'm a monster!"
When Hibbert stepped to the free-throw line shortly afterward, and thumped his right fist against his chest a few times for good measure, one of the referees approached him with a joking admonishment. "He told me," Hibbert said, "that [the gestures] looked tacky."
Perhaps, but everything else Hibbert did contributed to a stunning exhibition of all-around skill for one of the college game's few true centers. Hibbert scored in nearly every way imaginable on Friday. His first bucket -- "one that set the tone for the game," he said -- came on a follow-up dunk of a missed three-pointer by DaJuan Summers at the 17:56 mark. Less than four minutes later, Hibbert knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the key, not looking the least bit awkward in the process. When West Virginia used a smaller defender to front Hibbert, he caught a lob pass and went up for an easy slam.
After going into halftime with 13 points, Hibbert unveiled the rest of his repertoire in the second 20 minutes. That included scoring on a right-handed hook over Joe Alexander; a layup that was goaltended; and a putback in transition that was a reward for trailing a Jessie Sapp fast-break rather than lingering back on the defensive end.
"I knew he was going to come out hungry," Sapp said of Hibbert, "so we wanted to keep feeding him and feeding him. It wasn't just his scoring [that mattered]. It was his rebounds and his energy. We fed off him today -- and we need him in a game like that for us to be successful throughout the rest of the season."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently called the Hoyas "lucky" because they won close (and often controversial) games over Villanova, West Virginia, Marquette and Louisville to clinch the conference's regular-season title. ("God bless them," said Pitino. "They're closer to heaven than we are.") And therefore "luck" has become a media buzzword here at the Big East tournament, with every Georgetown player getting peppered with questions about it, and Big John Thompsonusing "we were lucky" as a refrain in his postgame interactions with the Hoyas.
This mini-controversy has obscured the fact that Georgetown has managed to win two games in New York in two incredibly disparate ways, first beating Villanova on a hailstorm of 17 threes and then beating West Virginia by riding Big Roy.
Senior guard Jonathan Wallace, who had five treys on Thursday and three more on Friday, said it "doesn't matter" whether opposing defenses choose to pack down on Hibbert or attempt to challenge shots on the perimeter. The option he prefers as Georgetown makes its run at a second straight Final Four, though, is to win with Hibbert as the focal point. "It creates a more balanced game," said Wallace. "We didn't shoot as many threes [against WVU] as we did against Villanova, but Roy was really anchored down in the middle, which allowed guys to still get a lot of open looks. [His breakout] came at the right time."
After Hibbert sat at the podium for the postgame press conference and explained what he had yelled -- the "I'm a monster" line -- Thompson III leaned over, with a faux-incredulous look on his face, and used the back of his left hand to act like he was taking Hibbert's temperature. If this is what a fever does to Big Roy, Georgetown best pray it turns into a month-long illness.
You know player No. 1. You know player No. 3. Those are your top two candidates for every national player of the year award. No. 2, the athletic, 6-foot-8 forward who's playing slightly better than Hansbrough over the past couple of weeks, and at least in the same ball park as Beasley, is barely known outside of West Virginia. The summer after Alexander's sophomore year in high school -- the same point at which Beasley and Hansbrough were becoming famous on recruiting circuits -- he was making his way back to the U.S. after spending six years in Beijing, while his father worked there for Nestle. Of the work he put in while in China, Alexander said, "I wouldn't call it basketball. It was just me, by myself, playing." He has only been a part of an organized team for five years.
Yet in Thursday's upset of 14th-ranked UConn, Alexander scored more points (34) than any player in the Big East tournament since Pitt's Vonteego Cummings (37) in 1998. The same player who only had offers from McDaniel, Randolph-Macon and Washington (not the University of Washington, but Washington College in Chestertown, Md.) coming out of high school, and scraped up a scholarship from WVU after a year at Hargrave Military Academy, managed to singlehandedly outscore the Huskies' entire front line of Jeff Adrien, Stanley Robinson and Hasheem Thabeet. That trio had just 28 points combined. The Mountaineers' 6-foot-8 junior star got his 34 with feathery fadeaway jumpers, drives to the basket to draw contact (he was 10-of-12 from the line) and a couple of emphatic dunks, including one in the final minute over Robinson, who was posterized in a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight.
This incredible run has elevated Alexander from being merely a decent star on a middling team into what UConn coach Jim Calhoun called "a terrific player," and perhaps the Best Player You Don't Know About anywhere in the country. It began at halftime of the Mountaineers' loss at UConn on March 1, when, according to senior forward Jamie Smalligan, WVU coach Bob Huggins got in Alexander's face and called him out for being "selfish." He had scored 12 first-half points but drawn Huggins' ire for a series of poor shots. This kind of motivation apparently works for Alexander, who's a naturally relaxed guy; he responded to the challenge not by declining to shoot but by getting more efficient, scoring 20 points in the second half to break the 30-point mark for the first time. He has not stopped scoring since.
As low as Alexander national profile is, he hasn't come entirely out of nowhere. "Joe's whole career, he just had flashes," said Smalligan, who first saw some of Alexander's potential when they played together on a Chinese summer tour in 2006. Even in October of 2005, when Alexander began his first practices as a freshman, Mike Gansey told a writer for the school's Web site, "I didn’t realize he was this good. He might be one of the top five athletes in the Big East. I’d put him up there with [Connecticut’s] Rudy Gay." Alexander may hame some of the same characteristics as former 'Eers star Kevin Pittsnogle -- both big white guys with facial hair and shooting touch -- but he is an infinitely better all-around player whom Huggins defined as "not a post guy, not a perimeter guy," but simply "a hard guard."
After seeing Alexander in this Big East tournament, where he's scored 60 points in West Virginia's two wins, it's amazing to think how marginalized he was in last year's run to the NIT title. Marginalized in John Beilein's offense -- and seemingly flirting with the then coach's doghouse -- Alexander did not score in double-figures for the Mountaineers' final nine games. Said sophomore guard Joe Mazzulla, "[Beilein's] offense had a lot to do with it; it was kind of like intramurals in that you made sure everyone got a shot up. Whereas this year, Joe's our workhorse. It's obvious who our best player is, and we go through him."
Alexander clashed with Huggins early this season as well, often responding to the fiery coach's assaults with blank stares. Huggins said he wanted Alexander to score like this all season, but "I couldn't get him to cooperate" -- mostly, the coach said, because Alexander has listened to pleas that he slow down his game, read defenses, and make better decisions on offense. When Alexander plays like that, West Virginia wants him to be selfish.
After the buzzer sounded, with Alexander dribbling out the clock on the best game of his still-blossoming career, Huggins put his arm around his star and walked him over to their postgame interview on ESPN. Leaning into Alexander's ear, the coach said, "See what happens when you do what I tell you to do?"
NEW YORK -- The Story of 'Gody, Notre Dame's breakout star and the Big East Player of the Year, ran in this week's Sports Illustrated. Since the Irish will be playing their conference-tourney opener in about five hours, now is as good a time as any to dispense of a few extra Luke Harangody nuggets:
• If 'Gody were to be placed on a New York magazine Approval Matrix, he'd be a lock for the lower-right quadrant: brilliant for the numbers he puts up despite looking like a tight end; low-brow for his sense of humor. In one of his favorite movies, Office Space, his favorite scene involves neither flair, red staplers nor a battered fax machine; 'Gody's parents said the clip he kept rewinding was when Tom Smykowski, the creator of the "Jump to Conclusions Mat," backs out of his garage and is blindsided by a pickup truck.
• 'Gody's brother, Ty, who's a junior at Indiana, is the more loquacious of the two, but shares the same taste in comedy. He told me a story from grade school in which the boys were reprimanded by a friend's grandfather -- "a guy who bled Notre Dame" -- for not displaying the proper mournfulness upon viewing the scene in Rudy where his pal, Pete, meets his end in a mill accident. "Rudy was holy territory for [the grandfather], and we were giggling," says Ty. Luke asserted to me, for the matter of record, that his humor has some bounds: "That's not a scene I'd actually joke about now," he said. "Notre Dame people would kill me."
• Neither of the boys, at that point, were fans of Notre Dame: They both grew up as die-hard Hoosier fans -- understandable, given that their dad, Dave, played football there while Lee Corso was coaching. Luke still has an autographed photo of Bobby Knight in his boyhood bedroom in Schererville, Ind., and a strip of IU logos covers the walls near the ceiling. (He does have a blue Irish blanket covering the bed, at least.) Had IU had a stable coaching situation when 'Gody was coming up through the high-school ranks, Dave says Luke "would have gone there in a heartbeat." As it was, the Hoosiers began recruiting 'Gody far too late in the process -- well after he had built a strong relationship with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
• Finally, the YouTube clip referenced in the SI story's lede -- the one that 'Gody had been playing for all of his teammates -- can be found below. The newsman, as far as I know, did not suffer any major injuries. Which means it's completely fine for you to laugh.
Far more people milling outside the Garden this morning. Georgetown and UConn fans have come out in droves. You could count some of the delegations here yesterday -- my colleague Stew Mandel says there were exactly five people in Cincy clothing -- but now it's a sea of blue and gray.
My favorite Penn Station cop of all time, killing time outside the Garden on 33rd and 8th. I actually took this yesterday ... but hadn't had a chance to post it 'til now.
For those of you wondering what it's like to be here: This is the view from courtside.
Day 2: Celebrating Long Days, And The Launch Of The Blog Pool
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- In his 1998 book March to Madness, John Feinstein wrote that "there is no day in college basketball longer than Friday at the ACC tournament" -- mainly because it sells out every year, and 95 percent of the fans stay for all four games, rather than just the one in which their team plays. Big East tournament ticket holders, judging from the scene yesterday at Madison Square Garden, are not nearly as hardy. The lure of the endless number of bad, Irish-themed watering holes within walking distance of the Garden is too strong for them, and thus they leave large portions of the arena vacant at any given time.
Today has a chance to be different. Whereas the ACC tournament's quarterfinals were once regarded as a holy holiday in college hoops, the conference is so top-loaded this year that everything before Sunday's final is somewhat insignificant. Which begs the question: Has Thursday at the Big East become the new Friday at the ACC? The stunning depth of the 16-team mega-league has created a quadruple-header in which every matchup is compelling: Georgetown-Villanova at noon, UConn-West Virginia at 2 p.m., Louisville-Pitt at 7 p.m. and Notre Dame-Marquette at 9 p.m.
I'm going to be at the Garden for 13 hours today, after spending 12 hours there yesterday. This will not be a problem.
• BIG NEWS ON THE POOL FRONT: We're taking the leap to Facebook for the Tourney Blog Pool this year. Here's how to get started:
• If you're already on Facebook, or have already added the SI Bracket Challenge Application, just follow this link to join our group, or merely accept the invitation that's on the front page of the Bracket Challenge.
• This is easier than it sounds, I promise. If you're old, and worried what your friends will think when they find out you're on Facebook, stop worrying. It's not just for college kids anymore. I signed up at the age of 27.
• OUR TOURNEY PLAYLIST, curated by the folks at Gorilla vs. Bear (who are still knee-deep in South by Southwest), rolls on: Day 2's track is the Black Lips' Not a Problem. They are children of Atlanta, the host of last year's Final Four -- but there is really no sense in trying to tie all of this in to basketball. It's just a nice track from a genre that David at GvB tells me must be referred to as "flower punk." Enjoy.
"I guess I'm one of the those guys where it's half empty instead of half full. I look back at the Pitt loss, I look back at the Oklahoma loss, I look back at the Georgetown loss, I look back at the Tennessee loss and say what if? I mean, all of a sudden now we're 26 wins and we're probably ranked in the Top 10, well, we are ranked in the Top 10 in the country even if we win half of those, two of those four. -- Bob Huggins on his 23-9 Mountaineers, after beating Providence on Wednesday
NEW YORK -- Two things I think we can all agree on: Bob Huggins has his half-glass idiom backwards, and West Virginia was capable of being a better team than its 23-9 record has suggested. While the Mountaineers are buried at No. 36 in The Associated Press' poll's others receiving votes section, they're No. 18 in kenpom.com's Pythagorean winning-percentage formula, which is based on efficiency numbers rather than actual game results.
Statistically, there's a way to explain this discrepancy. According to kenpom.com, West Virginia has been one of the nation's unluckiest teams, ranking 265th in his "luck" metric, which is not a measure of intangibles, but rather, "the deviation in winning percentage between a team's actual record and their expected record using the correlated gaussian method." I won't waste your time explaining correlated gaussian method. Basically: the numbers say that the Mountaineers, who will likely enter the NCAA tournament as no higher than a No. 8 seed, were just as efficient as some teams that will be No. 4s and 5s. The difference was that WVU hardly managed to pull out any of its big, close games -- resulting in those losses to which Huggins alluded.
So: Is this "unluckiness" metric a worthy tool for finding under-seeded teams -- and therefore, potential darkhorses -- in the NCAA tournament? Or is "unluckiness," the way kenpom.com defines it, an indication that the team should be expected to continue to fail in crunch-time situations? The limited evidence that we have supports the latter.
• Xavier (21-11): Ranked 298th in luck; lost in the first round to Gonzaga (3/14 seed) • Arkansas (22-10): Ranked 292nd in luck, lost in the first round to Bucknell (9/8 upset) • West Virginia (22-11): Ranked 281st in luck, lost in the Sweet 16 to Texas (2/6) • Kansas (25-8): Ranked 261st in luck, lost in the first round to Bradley (13/4 upset)
• Duke (22-11): Ranked 313th in luck, lost in first round to VCU (11/6 upset) • Georgia Tech (20-12): Ranked 306th in luck, lost in first round to UNLV (7/10) • Indiana (21-11): Ranked 298th in luck, lost in second round to UCLA (2/7) • Xavier (25-9): Ranked 279th in luck, lost in second round to Ohio State (1/9)
Five of those eight teams lost in the first round, three as upset victims. West Virginia reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 6, but only by beating an 11 and a 14 seed. The odds of a darkhorse tourney run seem stacked against the "unluckiest" teams in 2008 -- or at least three of the four:
• Arizona (18-13): Ranked 317th in luck, 23rd in Pythagorean Win% • Louisville (24-7): Ranked 287th in luck, 7th in Pythagorean Win% • Kansas State (20-11): Ranked 266th in luck, 13th in Pythagorean Win% • West Virginia (22-9): Ranked 265th in luck, 18th in Pythagorean Win%
Rick Pitino's Cards should get a pass here; they were hobbled for much of the season, and the ultra-efficient run they've gone on in the second half of Big East play has thrown their year-long averages out of whack. Arizona, Kansas State and West Virginia, though, look like teams that are destined not to capitalize on oodles of statistical potential.
NEW YORK -- As the first game of the Big East tournament neared its end -- a snoozer befitting of its noon start time -- a fan in Villanova's student section hoisted one of those ubiquitous acronym signs that read, "No Cuse At-large Anymore." That much was clear. After losing 82-63 to 'Nova, Syracuse will be on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Even Jim Boeheim, the perennial coach on the bubble, was resigned to his bubble having burst in 2008, saying afterwards, "We probably needed to win 2-3 games to get even close to where we were last year [when they were snubbed on Selection Sunday]. I don't think one win would have been enough by any stretch of the imagination."
But what of the Wildcats? Are they now safe? Their fans had no complementary sign that expressed confidence in 'Nova's own NCAA tournament footing ("Now 'Cats Are Assured" would have worked). There was, however, someone holding a t-shirt that said Don't Stop Believin' -- and that, perhaps, is the best 'Nova can do at this point. Beating Georgetown tomorrow would secure the 'Cats a place in the dance. One-and-done here and they're in very much the same position that Syracuse was last season, setting themselves up for heartbreak at the hands of the selection committee.
While the nature of the bubble may change every season, the following comparison should scare 'Nova fans: In nearly every key category, this year's 'Cats have a worse resume than the Orange did when they were snubbed in '07.
Team RPI SOS NC-SOS W-L BE W-L T50 Syracuse '07 50 46 122 22-10 10-6 3-6 Villanova '08 57 56 164 20-11 9-9 5-6
Wins over NCAA tournament-bound teams: Syracuse '07 (5): Penn, Holy Cross, Marquette, Villanova, Georgetown Villanova '08 (4): George Mason, Pitt, West Virginia, UConn
In his latest Bubble Watch, SI.com's Stewart Mandel has Villanova in the "bubble in" section, citing its five wins over top-50 competition as its main selling point to the committee. But if the 'Cats do lose to Georgetown tomorrow, they'd best set to work on creating a slick package to send to the selection committee, the centerpiece being footage of the blown calls that cost them a win against N.C. State (in Orlando on Nov. 25) and a trip to overtime against Georgetown (in D.C. on Feb. 11). The committee has consistently stated that it's willing to consider extra information like this in its deliberations on the bracket. How much weight it's willing to put into poor refereeing may ultimately decide Villanova's fate.